The Science of Colour

What’s the science behind the famous impressionism painting style of pointillism? I’ll expand on the colour theory behind this style, how it was influenced by science, and how this art has, in turn, influenced neuroscience, the study of visual perception.

Georges Seurat - Pointillism
Georges Seurat – Sitting Model, Profile, 1887, Close up of Pointillism brush stroke

Renaissance: Science & Light

In the late 16th Century, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci started playing around with light on their canvases. Prior to this art was very dark and figures were starkly illustrated. People were painted against a dark canvas, as if they were rigid statues surrounded by darkness, and landscapes reflected stillness rather than movement. So artists started working with various techniques such as sfumato (meaning to evaporate like smoke) which were developed through the artists’ scientific studies on light and dark in the natural world. The world’s most famous painting, The Mona Lisa is painted in this style. The painting has texture and depth created by small brush strokes and a bold use of lighter colours and shading. The effect leaves the viewer with the impression that her eyes follow you as you move around the painting.

Impressionists: Science of Shadows

In the 19th century, the Impressionists took this colour play further, by using the scientifically informed writing by Michel Eugène Chevreul, Charles Blanc, Eugène Delacroix and others . For the first time in Western history, artists stopped using black to draw shadows and white to convey light. Thanks to new developments in science, these artists realised these black and white tones do not really reflect nature. Our eyes perceive nature to be vibrantly colourful, even in its shadows. So they adopted the colour wheel model we know today, with three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) being blended to create corresponding secondary colours (orange, green and purple). Each of these two sets of colours has complimentary colours that can be used to create a much more realistic illusion of shadow and light. The new colour theory added even more depth and complexity to artwork.

Colour Wheel
The Colour Wheel

The artists developed their colour theory by working with scientific research about visual perception and by studying nature. They painted outdoors (“en plein air”) to capture the shifting light, in a way that was not customary for the day. The Renaissance artists and Impressionists presented their art theory as science. For example, Seurat talked about the light in his paintings hitting the retina (source). Science has had a significant impact on art (and vice versa), but this relationship hasn’t always been well-received. The art of Seurat and his contemporaries, Manet, Monet, Renoir and other masters were derided at the time. Their art was dismissed by many as a “perversion.” Yet by using colours in this new method, paintings were more vivid and life-like.


Professor Patrick Cavanagh conducts neuroscience research using art in order to understand the functions of the brain. He focuses on visual perception (how our brains process visual information), and the effect of art on eye movement, memory, and emotions. He notes that even as art is inspired by science, artists have taught us much about the how our brains make sense of visual information:

“For science, we’re just fascinated by this process: Why things that are not real, like lines, would have that effect. Artists do the discoveries, and we figure out why those tricks work.”

Georges Seurat – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
Georges Seurat – A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884

Learn More

  • How did Monet paint when he started losing his sight? I discuss this on Antipodeans.


  • This post is inspired by Professor Rajini Rao, who wrote a great introduction about the science that informs the art of Georges Seurat. Rajini Rao, The Art of Seurat: Science and Pointillism
  • Images: Seurat – The Realm of Light. Excellent documentary on the science of his artwork. Gifs by Zuleyka Zevallos.
  • I first published this post on Science on Google+.

2 thoughts on “The Science of Colour

  1. What an informative perspective and explanation on the science behind the evolution of artistic techniques! You also reminded me of a recent attempt to recreate Vermeer’s photorealistic techniques using cameras, mirrors and other optical gadgetry. (For lack of a better link:

    My only request (!) is that you share this to the science community as a standalone post, since Google+ unfortunately does not automatically include introductions with reshares. 


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